Anime is the Japanese term for animation or animated films which were traditionally created in that country but which now also include cartoons which utilize similar styles, themes, subject matter, and aesthetics in their production. Anime is typically distinguished from American cartoons by its adult themes and complex story lines and as such, unlike many western productions is neither directed at nor solely the purview of children and teenagers.  However, despite its appeal to all age ranges, Anime, like its American counterparts also has close ties to Manga or comic books. The style and themes common to Anime have their origins in the Japanese artistic and literary traditions as well as the culture, society, and recent historical events of the nation.  Generally Anime focuses on or includes themes of political repression, technological development, social discrimination, historical anxieties, violence, and sexuality.  While Anime, as a genre, originally arose in Japan, throughout recent decades the proliferation of DVD sales and later online streaming of videos has increased its viewership as well as leading to a rising international interest in and influence upon the genre.

Anime productions frequently range across a variety of literary genres including children’s stories, fairy tales, science fiction, fantasy, history, drama, romance, horror, thrillers, erotica and pornography.  The most popular Anime however, frequently explore and consider issues of teenage development, personal identity, and questions of injustice and discrimination, as well as violence.  In addition, most subsequent Anime has followed the themes and issues presented in Astro Boy (1963) with a focus on the duality of technology as both the source of innovation and the basis for destruction.  Anime stories and films also tend to have a larger focus on the real and practical rather than the ideal.  As a result, the morality, good will and intent of characters do not necessarily translate into successful and heroic figures.  Indeed protagonists are often subject to fate or events without reason which in turn lead to increasingly complex situations.  In this regard, the intentions of characters often play less of a role in Japanese Anime than Western cartoons.  Anime films also tend to include fewer details and have a quicker pace to the story, punctuated by slower scenes for reflection and emphasis.   While Anime is broadly set to appeal to varying age groups the largest demographic of viewers and fans are teenage boys.

The earliest examples of Japanese cartoons and animated films typically dramatized traditional folklore and stories.  While the artistic and literary approaches utilized in these early productions often sought to imitate the humour and style of American and English newspaper comic strips and cartoons, the influx of western culture at the turn of the century had also lead to an increasing desire to maintain traditional Japanese myths and legends at the centre of the stories being told.   After the end of the Second World War (1939-1945) changes to wartime government regulations as well as Osamu Tezuka’s (1928-1989) Manga series and later TV show, Astro Boy (1963-1966) would transform the Japanese animation industry. Tezuka in particular is considered by many to be one of the most influential animators and artists of the period.  His work focused on longer story arcs as well as character development which sought to introduce sophisticated themes into children’s entertainment. In addition his animation which included fast action, wide eyed characters, and minimalist approaches to design established the look and feel for subsequent Anime productions.  Despite having influenced the direction of subsequent Anime productions Tezuka acknowledged the influence of both Fleischer Studios and Walt Disney pictures upon his work and approach.

From 1963 into the mid 1980s most Anime appeared on Japanese TV, however changing costs, new  technological innovations, widening demand and growing American audiences soon lead to the production of popular Manga and Anime series into feature length films.  In this context, the release of Hayao Miyazaki‘s (1941-) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984 further lead to the increased international acclaim and interest in Anime.  During this period, Myazaki’s work, coupled with the release of American versions of Sailor Moon and Gundham on TV and films such as Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Evangelion (1997) into theatres served to define the genre among western audiences.  Indeed, by the early 1990s, the importation of Anime on DVD and release of films into North American theatres had not only increased dramatically but led to the expansion of the animation industry in Japan.  In addition to which, the appeal of Anime had also grown owing to the popularity of related paraphernalia throughout the world including Japanese card games and video games, such as the Pokemon and Final Fantasy series.

Despite its growing popularity and successes, American versions of Japanese Anime have come under continual critical pressure to be heavily edited to remove commentary and questionable content including excessive violence, sex, and pornography.  Owing to this type of material, there has also been intense debate regarding the role of Anime films and their influence on gender norms and the social treatment of women.  In particular critiques of Anime have often focused on the unrealistic portrayal and sexualisation of female characters which are typically presented as young girls who are thin, large chested, and naive.  Regardless of these critiques the popularity of Japanese Anime has continued to grow in both Europe and North America.   As a result, while Anime traditionally referred to films produced in Japan the term has subsequently been expanded upon to refer to stories and movies which have similar stories, themes, characters, or appearance.   At present the major Anime companies include BONES, GONZO, Studio Ghibli, Toei Animation, and Studio Pierrot.

— Sean Morton

Further Reading

  • Clements, Jonathan, and McCarthy, Helen, The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917.  Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2001.
  • McCarthy, Helen, A Brief History of Manga.  Lewes: United Kingdom: Ilex Press, 2014.
  • Napier, Susan, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke:  Experiencing contemporary Japanese Animation.  New York, N.Y.: Palgrave MacMillian, 2005.